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Crucial Points To Remember While Writing About Marginalised Communities

More from Shambhavi Saxena

Hello there, writer!

I assume what brings you here is your passion for writing on human rights and all forms of discrimination. Maybe you’re just starting to explore these topics, or maybe you’ve already been writing for some time. And maybe you’ve noticed that there’s something amiss in how the world in general reports and consumes information about experiences of marginalisation. It can seem top-down, or saviourist. It can even disempower the communities being talked about. So how do we right these wrongs? Read on:

Blanket Rules For Writing About Any Minority Community

1. Trash That Victim Narrative!

Instead of tainting our writing with a saviour complex and referring to communities as ‘poor helpless victims’, we should report on the work they’ve done to secure their rights and dignity.

To further challenge the victim narrative, another small change is valuable. In cases where the marginalised person is alive, swap the word “victim” for “survivor”.

2. Focus On Perpetrators

When it comes to incidents of violence against marginalised people, you’ll often find writers use the passive voice: “She was raped”, “He was attacked”, “They were beaten up”. But by who? Replacing passive voice with active voice puts the spotlight on the wrongdoers, rather than the survivors. “He raped her”, “They attacked him”, “The mob beat them up” – frontloading your sentences like this helps direct our attention to the perpetrator.

3. Representation Matters

Another good way to counter the victim narrative is to include marginalised people in your story, let them speak for themselves.

By chasing behind ‘experts’, academics, political reps and other ‘authority’ figures we often exclude marginalised people, assuming their opinions aren’t as valuable. Represent marginalised voices in your writing by including their quotes, their writing, artwork, photos, and other digital media.

4. Be Intersectional

Ask yourself if the issue you are writing on pertains to more than one sexuality or gender identity, to religious minorities, to lower-income groups, to people of different ethnicities, to people with disabilities (PWDs), and different castes. Try covering all possible perspectives.

5. Stop ‘Othering’ People

Many terms discussed here have been carefully developed to express the identities of marginalised communities in a respectful and empowering way. This sure beats phrases like “these people”! At the same time, it’s a good practice to also use terms that reflect privilege: “cisgender”, “upper-caste” or ”savarna”, “male”, “heterosexual”, “non-disabled” and “neurotypical”. It shifts our attention and helps put the onus where it belongs – on dominant classes of society.

The LGBTQ Community

1. Umbrella Terms

Many of us have heard of the acronym “LGBT”, which stands for “lesbian”, “gay”, “bisexual” and “trans”. Remember that there are identities like “asexual”, “pansexual”, “hijra”, “two spirit”, “intersex” “quioromantic” and others that are unknown to many of us. Adding a “+” to the acronym helps increase inclusivity.

You could also try “MOGAI”, another more inclusive acronym, which stands for “marginalised orientations, gender alignments and identities”.

2. Overlapping Identities And Subsets

Avoid using “gays” and “lesbians” as umbrella terms, because this excludes people who identify with various other identities. Use ‘gay man’, ‘lesbian woman’, ‘transgender man/woman’, ‘pansexual woman’ instead of ‘he is a gay’ etc.

Speaking of terminology, we should be aware of how inequalities seep into language. “He” and “she” can denote our personal proximity to ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ as gender identities. But they can also be employed against trans and nonbinary people, to cage them inside the gender they were assigned at birth. This is called misgendering.

Do not deadname people by using the name they have not chosen for themselves. And if you are unsure of what pronoun to use, ask them.

For more on how to write about queerness, click here.

Ethnic Groups

Using “tribals” as a catch-all phrase for people from the Seven Sisters or Chhattisgarh is a big no-no. If it’s pertinent to your story, find out tribes’ names, where they are located, even what their primary economic activities are. And then write about them.Remember, people from the North East are not “chinki”. This word was actually prohibited by India’s Home Ministry in 2012!

Racial differences must be treated sensitively. Using the term “African” in place of one of the 54 nationalities on that continent is inappropriate.

Similarly, do away with terms like “Harijan”, “untouchable”, and “lower-caste”. The word you should be using is “Dalit”, which was coined by social reformer Jyotirao Phule to highlight upper-caste oppression.

Familiarise yourself with the names of Muslim communities too. Both Shias and Sunnis have several sects within themselves, each with different customs and beliefs. This goes for various Christian denominations, the Parsi community, and all other non-Hindu religious identities.

We must be aware of the history of the communities we write about. In short: Don’t erase important cultural differences by lumping everyone together.

Women

Remember that urban, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual women are not the only focus of gender justice movements. When you write about an issue like menstruation, for example, be sure to explore the experiences of sex workers or trans men too.

We must diversify our approach to “women’s issues”. Viewing women as a monolith has always been a problem, since womanhood cannot be boiled down to a limited set of experiences. After all, the lives of Dalit women are very different from Brahmin women. Similarly, differences exist between the urban and rural, the elderly and the young women, straight and queer, cisgender and transgender, so on and so forth.

People With Disabilities

Last year, the word “divyang” was suggested as a replacement for “viklang” by our esteemed Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is by far the laziest attempt at including PWDs in the mainstream, while disability-friendly infrastructure is still unavailable in most of India. This sort of laziness happens in writing too, but you can avoid it.

Instead of saying ‘deaf’, ‘dumb’, and “blind”, use the terms “hearing-impaired”, “speech-impaired”, and “visually-impaired” respectively.

There are much more respectful and inclusive alternatives to commonly used ableist language like this, and you can find them here.

Noticing our misgivings, and working on them will take work and time. But it’s worth doing. Because, dear writer, you have the power to ensure that marginalised voices are heard. Make use of it.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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